HYPERthetically…Seeking wisdom in the age of too much information

This week, I am pleased to share with you Melissa Schomers’ remarks on information, knowledge and wisdom, which were presented at The Gunnery on October 3, 2017. Ms. Schomers is a faculty member in the English Department and the Wallace Rowe Chair. Although her thoughts were initially intended for our students and faculty, I believe many adults who have too much “information at their fingertips” will find her words meaningful and relevant.

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Would You Recognize Frankenstein If You Bumped Into Him?

Our optional faculty summer read is Neil Postman’s The Disappearance of Childhood. Written in 1982 and re-released in 1994, the book argues that childhood—as an idea or social construct—emerged with the invention of the printing press (1440) and that the invention of modern communications technology–the telegraph, radio, television, and advertising, in particular, caused its disappearance.

Some of you are nodding right now while others of you find this so intuitively ridiculous that you’re about to click on to something more relevant. Hang tight, doubters.

Even if you’re skeptical about Postman’s central thesis, it relies on a contributing thesis that has broader significance for all of us. It’s the kind of thing that, if true, is not waiting around for you or me to assent to it. In other words, It’s not a question of taste—and as much as almost everything these days seems to be decided based on taste (beets, kale and brussel sprouts weren’t trendy ten years ago…) I hope we can still agree that there are some things (like gravity and most other laws of physics) that aren’t up to us.

Postman argues that the technologies humans create inevitably act back on their creators. A relationship that seems one-sided (humans create something—the ax, the car, the telegraph–and those things do what we tell them to do) is actually reciprocal (the things that we shape end up shaping us and our culture, often in profound ways that happen gradually but become ubiquitous such that we don’t question them…and those who do sound like scaremongering idiots or Luddites).

I’ll quote Postman for a bit:

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Just Try to Pay Attention

This article from the Washington Post is just the most recent installment in the emerging story of the Internet’s impact on our brains, habits, and how we see the world. It reports on what we all know: for most of us, it is a lot more difficult today to concentrate on written material than it was five, ten, and twenty years ago. (If you enjoy this article I also commend to you David Carr’s 2008 article in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and his ensuing book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.) Full disclosure: I had to work very hard to finish this relatively short, interesting article in one sitting for precisely the reasons the author points out.

This topic matters for a lot of reasons and schools can’t focus on it enough. It is not enough for schools to equip students with the latest technology and the knowledge and skills for using it. Schools—and their teachers—must also be great at equipping students to think about technology—the ways that technology shapes us as we use it, the benefits and costs of using more of it. This has intellectual, moral, social, physiological, and even spiritual ramifications and does not get enough press or attention in most schools today.

It also becomes clear that in addition to teaching students how to understand and decode literature or poetry, or to work through a challenging problem in calculus or physics, we also need to teach students how to pay attention. Let’s be honest, it was never easy, at least for me in high school, to choose between reading Hamletand doing just about anything that my buddies were doing at the same time. Actually, it was easy and Hamletoften got left until late at night once everyone had gone to sleep. But all of the distractions that existed then—human distractions, in person (we thought it was really fun to play backgammon in between classes, on a real backgammon board, no less)—exist today and ten thousand more (e.g. Angry Birds). The author of the article I referenced originally demonstrates what it means to exercise the attention muscle intentionally and great teachers and advisors of high school students need to help students develop the interest to do the same.

Just like any other thing—money, power, etc.—technology can be a positive force when we use it well. When we don’t, however, it can have unintended negative consequences—distracting us from things that matter most, corrupting our vision of the world and understanding of ourselves, limiting—rather than expanding—our ability to engage the world with wisdom and courage. Most high school students—let’s be honest, most adults—don’t want to think about this. They’d rather just text, Google, YouTube (I know the first two are nouns that we’ve turned into verbs so assume that the third will be if it isn’t already), etc. At least one part of the equation is putting great, thoughtful adults with whom they can relate in their path to interrupt the taken-for-granted.

I’d appreciate any suggested readings or resources that have gotten you to be more mindful of how you interact with technology day-to-day (and I’m particularly interested if you’re reading this and are under age 21!).